The Impact of Executive Education Programs

From The Practice November/December 2017
From the classroom to the office

In “Attention to Detail,” we examined the core components of an executive education program aimed at lawyers and all the work that goes into combining those pieces to achieve maximum impact. In this article, we look at what that impact actually looks like, both in the classroom when lawyers are attending a course as well as back in the office as they apply the knowledge gleaned. To help gauge this impact, The Practice spoke with two leaders who attended Harvard Law School (HLS) Executive Education’s flagship programs, Leadership in Law Firms (LLF) and Leadership in Corporate Counsel (LCC), respectively: David J. Greenwald, chairman of Fried Frank, and Jim Kelleher, executive vice president and chief legal officer of Liberty Mutual. These lawyers’ experiences with executive education demonstrate the impact of these programs on an individual and organizational level.

Going back to school

David Greenwald began his legal career at Fried Frank as a summer associate in 1982, rising through the ranks to become a partner in 1990. In 1994 he made the jump over to Goldman Sachs, where he worked in the legal department as their international general counsel and deputy general counsel. In 2013 Greenwald rejoined Fried Frank as chairman. While the setting was familiar—he was returning to the firm where he had started his career and had spent more than a decade working as a corporate lawyer focused primarily on mergers and acquisitions—the firm and the responsibilities were also very new. After a nearly two-decade hiatus from private practice, Greenwald was now taking on top-level management responsibilities of a firm with—at that time—more than 400 lawyers and more than $450 million in revenue in an era of immense change in the legal profession (see “The Global Age of More for Less” and “Disruptive Innovation in Legal Services”). It was at this point Greenwald realized that perhaps it was time to go back to school. In May 2014 he enrolled in HLS Executive Education’s LLF program. Commenting on his decision to go back to school, Greenwald notes, “While investment banks and law firms are in the professional services industry, there are vast differences between how they are run.” He continues, “I thought this program, which was focused specifically on law firm leadership, would help provide more of a framework for my new role. When I moved from Goldman Sachs back to Fried Frank, I quickly realized: I’m not in Kansas anymore!”

I saw that these case studies really work. They are a great way to get people to identify and talk about issues rather than just relying on a textbook.

David Greenwald, chairman of Fried Frank

When he showed up for his first day of LLF, he knew right away that the content was geared specifically toward him and the new challenges he would face leading a major international firm. “The very first case about the producer-manager dilemma—the Bob Anderson case—spoke to my experience at Goldman Sachs and to the time since my return to Fried Frank,” Greenwald says. “I had only been back at Fried Frank for about six months when I took this course, which was just enough time to appreciate how this case applied to my situation.” He continues:

One of the things that I found particularly interesting about that case and the discussion that came out of it was what it meant for training people—namely, associates. At Goldman Sachs, everybody has a supervisor and you have a solid reporting line to somebody. That isn’t always the case in a law firm. You have a big department or big practice group with many partners and associates. If you asked an associate who their supervisor was, they would often be unsure and would likely talk about the different matters they were on and the different partners they were working for. So I thought the discussion that came out of the case study was interesting and timely.

Although a tradition in the world of business education, the case study method is often a new experience for senior lawyers. “I remember sitting at LaGuardia Airport trying to finish reading the case studies and thinking, ‘Case studies? Is this really the best way to go?’” recalls Greenwald. That initial skepticism, however, quickly melted away. (For more on how case studies work, see “Jazzing up the Classroom.”) “Very quickly into the program,” Greenwald notes, “I saw that these case studies really work. They are a great way to get people to identify and talk about issues rather than just relying on a textbook. I went into the program worried that it would be too academic, but it was ultimately very practical.”

Like Greenwald, Jim Kelleher entered the legal profession in the early 1980s, beginning his legal career at the same organization where he is now a leader—Liberty Mutual. Kelleher rose through the ranks at Liberty Mutual’s legal department, managing the company’s corporate litigation, serving as international general counsel for more than a decade, and becoming the company’s general counsel in 2013. Kelleher leads a legal function made up of about 1,000 lawyers—about 2,000 professionals in total—scattered across 80 offices in the United States in addition to offices in 30 other countries. Upon assuming his new position and all that it implied, Kelleher, like Greenwald, also decided to go back to school and in May 2014 enrolled in HLS Executive Education’s LCC program.

Reflecting on his experience during the program, Kelleher remembers how powerful the case study method was for him. In particular, he remembers a case study about crisis management and the role of the general counsel, “Driving Blind at General Motors.” The case, which examines GM’s response to a widespread safety defect, the resulting federal investigation, and the action—and inaction—of the in-house legal counsel in dealing with a faulty ignition switch and related airbag malfunction, provides a real-life example of how corporate culture, bureaucratic divisions, and a lack of accountability can pose significant challenges to the in-house counsel’s ethical and professional obligations. (For more on this case study, see “Asleep at the Wheel.”) “It’s something you hope never descends upon you,” says Kelleher in reference to the case study. “But you want to understand the problems that persisted within the legal department there. These are the types of issues that could happen anywhere if there are not proper communications, controls, and a culture that rewards speaking up.”

The issues I deal with are being dealt with everywhere. And there’s a lot of similarity when it comes to both problems and solutions.

Jim Kelleher, executive vice president and chief legal officer of Liberty Mutual

Beyond the illustrative power of case studies themselves, Kelleher remembers the power of the participants and faculty in the room—and how the conversations that emerged fostered deep understandings for all involved. “Professors David B. Wilkins and Scott Westfahl, in particular, had a level of passion about these topics and a teaching style that really did get the best out of people, both in terms of their participation and in thinking through all the various issues on a particular problem,” Kelleher notes. He goes on to stress how important the other general counsel in the room were to helping him think through the issues:

The program was a good opportunity, not just to learn about the sorts of things that Harvard Law School thought were important from the GC’s perspective, but to build relationships with folks who were in similar situations. At the time, I was a fairly new GC, and there were plenty of others from various industries around the world in the class. For me, I was hoping to make sure that I was focused on the right things, and I figured the only way I could really determine that would be to get some input and observations about what other folks were dealing with in terms of the GC role.

As noted in “Attention to Detail,” a critical aspect of the program was the careful combination of both similarities and differences among the participants—the participants were similar enough to have common points of reference, but different enough so that diverse backgrounds and experiences prevented the classroom from becoming an echo chamber. Thinking about this similar/different dichotomy, Kelleher notes, “These programs are useful because they confirm what you know but also broaden perspective and create real subject matter learning opportunities. They give you a scorecard about the issues that other people in a similar role are going through and whether that’s resonating.” Kelleher recalls the diversity of general counsel in his program, with participants from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America in addition to the United States. He adds:

What was interesting was that the issues I deal with are being dealt with everywhere. And there’s a lot of similarity when it comes to both problems and solutions. They weren’t necessarily geographically specific. I learned that many of the issues that I have are the same issues that the GC at some company in Eastern Europe was dealing with—maybe on a smaller scale, because we’re a fairly large company. So having big, robust discussions around that and having people very engaged was really helpful.

That high level of engagement with the material and with the others in the room was something that resonated with Greenwald as well. “The case studies depend in large part on the quality of the students,” he says. As Kelleher says, “People came from far and near to this program, and obviously everybody did their homework.”

From the classroom to the office

Executive education programs are intensive and compact. There is a lot to take in, and the pace keeps up from start to finish. By design, then, much of the true impact of the program takes place well after the students have left the classroom and returned to their offices. The programs are appealing because they immerse you in situations that you have experienced or are very likely to experience, and allow you to dissect that scenario with a group of your peers and a faculty expert—to turn it over and over and to understand the pro and cons of various responses. The course, and the underpinning case study method, are specifically geared toward practical application and impact. It is important to note that the impacts are also not limited to those in the classroom. Because the lessons being taught often focus on broad leadership skills (and are being taught to senior leaders within their organizations and professions), individual impact and growth often becomes organizational impact and growth.

Rethinking strategy was a major theme that Greenwald took away from his program and one that continues to impact how he leads his firm. On an individual level, he notes, “For me, the biggest takeaway was learning the four factors that drive the profitability of the law firm in any matter,” says Greenwald. “Those are productivity, realized rates, leverage, and margin or cost. I learned that it’s not just what we should be doing. Equally important is not doing the things we shouldn’t be doing—and that understanding of strategy has really helped us stay the course.”

He is able to recite these factors so readily, he says, because he begins every monthly partner meeting with these four factors, encouraging partners to think about them as they manage their practices and handle matters. “I would say just about every decision—for example, lawyer head count, offices, compensation, which practices to emphasize—has been with one strategy in mind. And those four factors play a key role in that strategy.” In this way, the lessons Greenwald learned in the classroom are being amplified through his leadership throughout his organization.

I learned that it’s not just what we should be doing. Equally important is not doing the things we shouldn’t be doing—and that understanding of strategy has really helped us stay the course.

David Greenwald

Executive education is geared toward professionals with this kind of organizational influence—hence the emphasis on leadership, among other skills, required of senior lawyers with growing responsibilities. The LLF program, for example, helps law firm leaders become more effective managers and make better decisions for their firms. By going through case discussions and lectures about professional service firms, participants reflect on their own organizations. Often times the takeaways are profound. “One of the things that we learned in the course was that the practices of professional service firms are all positioned somewhere on a spectrum depending on the kinds of problems they solve for clients and what their value proposition is,” remembers Greenwald. He continues:

One end is addressing unique, difficult problems with cutting-edge theory, and the other is tackling lower-level problems with efficiency—I think they were labeled “rocket science” and “commodity.” We’re positioned along that spectrum, and I learned that you can run into difficulty trying to manage a practice you think is situated at one end of the spectrum when really it lies somewhere else. So despite the temptation that I—and many of my partners—may feel to move along that spectrum and to take that more commoditized work, it is important to keep the overall strategy in mind. This course really provided me with a vocabulary for what I was seeing and experiencing at the firm.

Kelleher’s experiences also reflect impact and growth on the individual and organizational level. One notable example where his executive education influenced both his individual thinking and broader, organizational structures is at the intersection of innovation and strategy. “I walked away from my program with a much better understanding about advances in technology that were imminent in the legal profession,” says Kelleher. “Appreciating that dynamic had a big impact on my own thinking.” This in turn led to a number of macro-level changes at Liberty Mutual’s legal department, including bringing in professionals with backgrounds other than law who were often better equipped than the lawyers to deal with these new dynamics. Kelleher explains:

Since the course, I’ve hired an operations manager—a former engineer from outside the legal profession—to help me identify critical issues and opportunities to make sure my law department is not only functioning well today but will also be functioning well in two years and in five years. What technology tools do we need to be researching and ultimately investing in? What project management skills do we need? What communications skills do we need to bring in? I took a lot of the discussion at that executive education program to heart and used it to help round out the type of talent and skills that we had here in the legal department, particularly with folks from outside the profession. We sought out people who were equipped to advance the legal organization by building out our predictive models, people who could develop some machine-learning and artificial intelligence capabilities, employ data analytics, improve our e-discovery and knowledge management mechanisms, as well as people who would be focused on process improvement, making sure that what our lawyers are doing actually is efficient and maximizing their value to the corporation.

Beyond broadening Kelleher’s own understanding of the profession, the program influenced changes within his legal department—such as where to invest, whom to hire, how a lawyer’s time is best spent—and contributed to a larger systemic shift in the legal profession, a shift toward professionals with backgrounds in accounting, finance, and even engineering to help set organizational strategy. (For more on these “outside” professionals shaping strategy in law firms, see “Steering Law Firm Strategy.”)

It was powerful in terms of addressing exactly the issues you need to know more about. This program was a real opportunity to delve into all those areas you might know about, but you don’t know enough about.

Jim Kelleher

Perhaps no decision by Kelleher better typifies this wide-ranging impact of executive education programs than the creation of a custom executive education program just for Liberty Mutual professionals. In these one-day intensive courses, groups of lawyers go through a series of case studies covering topics ranging from crisis management to career planning. “One case study around career challenges addressed the importance of attracting, developing, and retaining key talent. A lot of it is about making sure employees understand what’s really important in their professional development and that they need to take responsibility for their own careers,” says Kelleher. “These legal career case studies demonstrate the kinds of development experiences and challenges that our lawyers might face, whether they are in Hong Kong, London, or right down the corridor here in Boston.” He continues:

The other critical piece of the one-day program focuses on problem identification, influence, escalation, and resolution ownership. I learned from my executive education program that the general counsel, in particular, needs to have meaningful processes and capabilities to be informed of all the important things that are going on. However, the general counsel is still heavily reliant upon others doing the right thing. We need to have systems in place to make sure that people are speaking up and raising issues when they’re not satisfied with the attention an important issue is getting. Sometimes they need to go above and beyond the chain of command and get the information to the right people, because these kinds of challenges can surface. And they don’t have to be in the legal department. They can surface in other places in the corporation, so getting people to understand the pitfalls of these types of problems—and the solutions—is an important part of the course.

In a word

Education, parents often tell their children, is critical to long-term success. It is clear from the experiences of these two senior lawyers that education continues to be critical and impactful throughout one’s life. And, if you ask these lawyers, they will tell you it has made a difference for the better. To help capture how our interviewees reflected on the totality of their executive education experiences, we asked them to describe the programs in just one word. “Can it be hyphenated?” asks Greenwald. “Because I would say thought-provoking.” He goes on:

One of the greatest things about it was, first of all, getting back into the classroom, which was a fun experience. I hadn’t been in the classroom in a long time! In addition, the case studies were a great way to highlight issues through interesting stories. You read the case, you talk about the case, and you immediately start thinking about how that fits into your firm, what the takeaway is, and what you should do about it.

“For me, that word is powerful,” says Kelleher. “It was powerful in terms of addressing exactly the issues you need to know more about. This program was a real opportunity to delve into all those areas you might know about, but you don’t know enough about.”

Through Greenwald and Kelleher, we see how executive education programs can impact both individuals and their organizations. As Scott Westfahl notes in “Executive Education for Lawyers,” however, a sizable gap remains in legal education with respect to leadership and other professional skills. Whether at a law firm or a corporate legal department, whether managing thousands of lawyers across more than 100 different offices or taking the reins at a large firm after decades away from private practice, there is a need for immersive, accelerated learning aimed at filling that gap. Executive education offers this opportunity, and the impact is plain to see when lawyers return to their offices and put into effect what they have learned.